Friday, 27 May 2022

Salt smugglers [cont.] - Policing the gabelle

 [...continuing my notes from Bernard Briais's book, Contrabandiers de sel (1984)]


Gardes des brigades des Fermes du roi, 1788, 
Association pour l'histoire de l'administration des douanes

The  Farm was faced with 1200 lieus (c.4800 kilometres) of internal frontiers to police.  Guardposts were ranged along these borders, where possible following the line of the rivers: the Meuse to the east, the Mayenne to the west, the Vienne and the Creuse between Poitou and Touraine. A second or even a third line of guard posts would  provide reinforcement.  The guards could be stationed at crossing points or act as patrols; on the water itself, flat-bottomed pataches were manned at the entrances to the rivers.   Most brigades comprised two to six men, but a few were larger:  in the Bourbonnais, the brigade of La Roche-Bransat, had a captain, a lieutenant and ten cavalrymen; the brigade La Jolivette at Chemilly also had ten men.  The distance between guardposts varied according to the terrain and the level of smuggling activity.   No less than nine brigades were stationed along the Vienne over the nineteen kilometres between l'Ile-Bouchard and Candes, including one on a patache at the confluence with the Loire.

Local defiance (p.115-18)

The "gabelous" had an evil reputation, and often encountered resistance from the local communities.   In September 1767 the inhabitants of Saint-Berthevin in Mayenne, murdered a lieutenant and three of his men on the pretext that they had reported lies about the parish; in the previous year, two gabelous had already been "grievously maltreated".  

The local populations would support the smugglers.  Sometimes whole parishes, with the women at their head, would shout down the gabelous and come to the aid of the those arrested.   In the parish of Charensat in the north of the Auvergne, near Montel de Galet.  One Sunday in 1707, during a festival, the local brigades arrived  to arrest a certain Ribot.  The crowd began to throw stones, badly injuring the captain, and the prisoner contrived to make his escape.  As a result eleven inhabitants were arrested and livestock confiscated from the parish in order to pay compensation to the injured man. (p.116-7).

In the West too, smugglers were also aided by the local inhabitants. In June 1760 seven contrabandiers who took refuge in a forge in Olivet, in Maine, were defended by the workers, armed with their hammers.  In the same region in 1772 the gabelous were obliged to relinquish their prisoner when they were attacked by villagers armed with guns, frettes and iron bars.  Another example of a spontaneous rescue is furnished by the little town of Richelieu in the Touraine, which was the site of a grenier.  In February 1775 some employees of the gabelle had surprised five smugglers attempting to cross the Vanne with  horses laden with salt. The arrest was attended with some violence.  In Richelieu,   the gabelous  were accosted in the town squared by a crowd of children "of different ages and both sexes". The guardsmen panicked and in the ensuing melee a boy of fourteen was shot through the hand; carpenters working on a building site nearby succeeded in freeing two of the smugglers.  The gabelous were obliged to retreat at a gallop, dragging their three remaining  prisoners behind their horses. (p.117-8).

Who were the gabelous? (p.119-121)

According to Boulainvilliers, writing in 1727, the guards employed by the Farm were "among the most terrible of animals, recruited from the dregs of the people" (Mémoires concernant les moyens d'établir le droit d'amortissement des gabelles, p.54).

In reality, the whole corps should not be judged by the cruelty and dishonesty of a few.  The majority came from the same poor rural society as the smugglers. The Provincial director in Laval, Châteaubrun, insisted on dedication of his brigades:

The majority of the employees perform their service without shirts or shoes; in the tour of inspection I made with M. de Saint-Hilaire, this Farmer-General saw, like me, men who had no other clothing than a few old ribbons of coarse cloth, badly held together and covered in thick filth.   Yet these men work with untiring diligence, ...and there is no department where the service is more tough and determined... In the neighbouring directions, our employees are known as "les galériens de Laval" (Callery (ed), La fraude des gabelles (1882)  p.10)

The wages were modest: a guardsman or "archer" earned between 200 and 300 livres a year; but a labourer might earn half that; lieutenants earned 360 livres and a captain 500 livres.  In addition there were bonuses to be won for the arrest of smugglers and the recovery of contraband salt.  Guards were also eligible for pensions after twenty years service and compensations for injuries received in the line of duty.  Before they received their commissions, candidates were encouraged to learn to read and write in  order to draw up procès-verbal, administer oaths and keep records in the course of their work.

Illustration from Ernest Lavisse's Histoire de France, c.1920

Powers of search (p.121-126)

It was above all the sweeping powers of search enjoyed by the militia of the Farm which earned them popular hatred.  These "visites domiciliaires" were deeply resented;   according to Vauban's Projet d'une dixme royale of 1708, the gabelous were widely suspected of planting contraband salt in order to vex those they wished to harm.  Occasionally they meet with resistance;  in June 1770 in Laval, three gabelous were forced to abandon a search when confronted by an angry crowd led by a certain Elisabeth, a known faux saunière (p.121-22). Nobles too were subject to searches.   The guards would often choose the moment the master was absent to make a raid on his house;  in 1733  the brigade of Chinon searched the château of the sire de Rochefort at Cheillé when he was away and were finally rewarded with the discovery of a cache of salt hidden in an old window which had been transformed into a cupboard. Sometimes, it seems, they took a malicious pleasure in harassing their social superiors.  In September 1763 in the parish of Blaison in Anjou they arrived armed at the house of an elderly widow, where they visited each room in turn, and obliged her sick daughters to leave their beds in only their chemises.

Abuses (p.126-35)

The records certainly contain examples where searches descended into "veritable operations of pillage". In 1764  François Prévost, a lawyer from Angers, composed a memoir to the King in which he catalogued an array of excesses, including several instances where innocent citizens had been fired on and wounded by the gabelous:  a certain Mathurin Bourdais, from Pruillé,  had even died of his wounds.  The gabelous habitually wielded sticks with great iron hooks which inflicted injuries, whilst their traps in the forests menaced innocent passers-by.  The use of dogs is also attested.  On occasion the brigades would act like veritable highwaymen: Goislard de Montsabert, comte de Toureil found himself forced to flee when his stagecoach was ambushed  by the brigade in La Flèche.  (His assailants were condemned to death but quickly transferred before the punishment could be carried out). 

Despite the harsh penalties they faced,  Châteaubrun complained many of the Farm's employees had "a second profession" as a faux-sauniers.  There are a few cases of  men caught smuggling, but for the most part, the gabelous participated indirectly, making their activities extremely difficult to detect.  In 1750 the Farmer General Bouvet blamed the insufficiency of their wages for this persistent fraud.  


Conditions in the prisons (p.139-42) 

Those arrested for smuggling awaited judgment in the prison of the grenier, "a sejourn of horror and despair" according to the inhabitants of Saint-Poix in Angers, who complained of the disproportionate punishments meted out to petty offenders.  There were some particularly grim prisons, such as the medieval donjon at  Buzançais in Indre or, above all, the notorious Tour Grenetière in Saumur, where the condemned from the surrounding area were held to await  the arrival of the chain gang to Brest.

In 1695 the Intendant of Tours Hue de Miromesnil ordered that the prisoners in Saumur should no longer be chained by the feet to a central beam, but should be shackled in pairs at the neck - as was practice in the Tournelle  prison in Paris, the point of departure for the chain gangs: this greatly increased their misery.

In 1709 the Intendant Turgot denounced the overcrowding in the prison, which in his view risked causing an epidemic.  The number of deaths in the prison in 1709 was fourteen, rising to twenty-five for 1710.  A priest who attended the prisoners, attested to the appalling conditions: 

In the tour Grenetière, on the ramparts of the town of Saumur in Anjou, there are three rooms where smugglers condemned to the galleys are shut up and forced to lie on rotten, vermin-infested straw.  The windows are so small that it is impossible to breathe except with difficulty.  In the past two years there have been more than sixty prisoners in each room, so tightly packed that they suffocate and spread infection.  Dysentery and plague have killed more than two hundred men....

My vicaire and I are frequently obliged to administer the final sacraments to dying men in this foul, infected place, at the risk of our own lives....

It is not only that these poor prisoners are malnourished, having only bread and water to eat, and are piled up on top of each other without air.  They are yoked together in pairs at the neck with an iron bar, so that they can scarcely move without injuring themselves, and those who are well are forced to take the breath of the sick.  In good weather the gaolers allow them out of the dungeons to take the air on the tower.  Some drop dead on the stairs; others do not have enough strength to reach the tower but die under the eyes of their comrades, and often in our presence....In the first year the Chain passed through Saumur twice. These poor men begged to be allowed to join it, so that they could be delivered from a prison which seemed worse than the galleys, worse even than death itself.  But the majority were deprived of this miserable consolation;  some died at the door of the prison as soon as they were attached to the Chain;  the others died on the roads of the town and its outskirts.  Those who resisted death spread disease and pestilence wherever they passed...   

MS memoir from Jacques Lebrun, curé in Saumur, to the Bishop of Angers, dated 11 November 1711, cited in "La repression du faux-saunage",  on the website Saumur-Jadis,

Mgr  Poncet de La Rivière sent this text to the Controller of Finance, Desmarets, adding that the inhabitants of Saumur feared contamination.  In response the windows were enlarged, probably in 1722-26, and the neck restraints abandoned.  In 1722, however, the Secretary of State for the Navy still complained that  the 78 convicts - of which 76 were salt smugglers - who joined the chain gang  in Saumur were entirely naked and far too weak to survive the journey (cited in Zysberg, Le Galériens, 1987, p.19)

Fortunately for those detained, not all prisons were so terrible - or indeed, so secure. There were occasional spectacular escapes, sometimes with the collusion of the authorities.  In 1706 a dozen prisoners managed to escape from Châlons-sur Marne, even though they were chained by the ankles and watched by nine guards.  In October 1741 seven faux-sauniers escaped from Buzançais. (p.142)

Penalties in practice (p.143-51)

The lightest penalty laid down by the Ordinances of 1680 was a fine of 200 livres, which was converted into a public flogging for those who could not pay within a month.  Priolo, the Director for gabelles in Abbeville, complained in 1703, that the majority of those convicted accepted the flogging with bravado.  He found that forced conscription proved to be a far more effective deterrent.  Recruitment of condemned smugglers into the army became a widespread practice, above all during the wars of Louis XIV.  

By far the most common penalty for serious smugglers, however, was condemnation to the galleys.  At the beginning of the century, convicts literally faced being chained to their oars.  By the mid-century the sentence implied hard labour in the arsenals of Brest, Toulon or Rochefort. The chain-gangs left Paris each year in May and in September.  Condemned men  would be gathered together at key towns en route  As Mollien noted, in 1783 a third of the six thousand prisoners in the bagnes, were faux-sauniers. In 1779 thirty-seven were sent from Laval alone. The men were first publicly branded between or on the shoulders with a red "GAL", so that repeat offenders could be easily identified. 

 In September 1789 as Revolution gained momentum the situation in the surrounding country was considered too volatile for the chain gang to leave Paris;  so it was that the final faux-sauniers convicted under the Ancien Régime evaded their punishment.

For offences involving violence or repeated carriage of arms, the prescribed penalty was death.  Bernard Briais ends this part of his book with a sorry example from among the many convicted:

In September 1724 a bitter skirmish took place between members of the brigade from Genest, near Laval and a band of smugglers, during the course of which ne of the gabelous, Jean Lefèvre, was killed.  Only two of the smugglers,Antoine Ménard and René Planchois., were arrested. The first was condemned to be hanged; his body remained on the scaffold for twenty-four hours before being buried in the place where the murder was committed. René Planchois  was condemned to galleys in perpetuity.  Two of their accomplices who were condemned in absentia to be broken on the wheel, but  but fortunately for them the sentence could only be carried out "in effigy" (p.150)


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